Saturday, April 26, 2014

More Digital Magic - This time: Read&Write for Google

Ever since I attended the Google Academy for Teachers in 2011 in Tel Aviv, I have morphed into a Google junkie - unrecognizable by family, friends and anyone who knew me prior to that life-altering experience (ok... a little hyperbole to hook you never hurts, right?). Ever since that evolution, Chrome has my weapon of choice (aka: my default browser ;-). 

Do you use Google Chrome? I hope so, because the rabbit I'm going to pull out of my digital magician's hat today only works on Google Chrome. It is called “Read&Write for Google”. The tool comes in two forms: the premium version, which has a lot more accessibility and options as well as the free version which in itself is wonderful for students who need to be read to.
The first thing you do is go to the Google App Store and download the “Read&Write for Google” extension for Chrome.
Once installed, you get all of the premium features for free for a month. It's fun to play with them however in order to get the premium version after a month it costs $100 for a subscription for a year. if you have a student who is learning disabled and needs to be read to and do all sorts of other work and work together with the laptop it might be worth their while. It is it is not more expensive than an electronic dictionary, and far more versatile (providing they work with a laptop or computer often). However even the free version can enable them admittance to sites and docs that until now were more challenging for them to access.
So what does this marvelous tool to do? Once you have installed the extension for “Read&Write for Google” to your Chrome browser, it will read aloud any webpage that is in English. This enables your students who need to be read to, to access documents in their Google Drive, Internet pages, even their emails!

It can be used on their PCs at home and on their laptops, if they have. If they have the adaptation of being read to, they can use it it during exams as well. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, you cannot install it to a smartphone. Hopefully that will not be too far off.   I also tried to download it on my Android tablet, but it does not support the program. It DOES, however, look like it will work on an iPad.
I have used and recommended other readers before such as ReadPlease (which has been discontinued), and Natural Reader. I am very happy to see that the “Read&Write for Google” reader sounds more pleasant and natural to my ears than the tinny alternatives that we have had for free until now. In addition,  in the other programs you would have to copy and paste the text that you want to be read to you, into the window of the program. With “Read&Write for Google” all you have to do is click on the icon on your Chrome browser window, which opens the program toolbar, and send it on its way! It will read exactly what is on the website or in the Googledoc.
All you need to do now is be sure that the work that you give your students is already digitalized and show them how to install the extension on their Chrome browser, and ......voila!
Are any of you acquainted with this useful Chrome extension? Have you or your students used it? If so, please share your experiences and impressions here in the comments! Also, if you have an iPhone, or an iPad, do let us know if it works there!

Digitally yours,

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Getting Excited about Speech-to-Text in Googledocs

My three previous blogs have been about using Googlesites with students for doing project work. I described the procedure that I went through with my students to teach them how to build a site to house their projects. By developing their projects on Googlesites, it enabled me to preserve them online, in one easily accessible place, without the worry of my students misplacing or losing their projects by the time the oral exams roll around in two years’ time, when they will need to present and discuss them with an external examiner.
At the heart of the Googlesites work for the project, are the Googledocs, themselves. I have been using Googledocs for quite a few years now. Ever since being first introduced to them while collaborating with two colleagues who live in different areas of the country, in order to devise a training program for teachers.  Googledocs has the magic of being able not only to crumble walls and cause the constraints of distances to evaporate, it dematerializes barriers that would exist  even if I had been working in the same room as my collaborators. As opposed to  pen-and-paper, or even other word-processor options, a collaborative Googledoc enables all collaborators to write on, edit and annotate the same document at the same time, as talking through our plans.
As if that were not cool enough, Googledocs has just gotten even more magical for me, because I have discovered that I can easily record my text on my tablet or smartphone as I am doing right now for the draft copy of this blog entry. The potential this holds for EFL teaching simply boggles  my mind when I think of the uses that it has for working with my students in the classroom.

I intend to experiment with it using it not only to help my students develop their writing skills but also as a form of objective feedback - a way to help them improve their pronunciation, by using the Googledocs as a non-threatening, non-criticial way of mirroring how clearly they pronounce words and sentences that they want to say in English. The program transcribes what it “hears”. If they pronounce “tree” instead of “three”, Googledocs will write the plant and not the number.
I, myself, use the speech to text options often. I rarely type text messages anymore because it is just so much easier to record them.  If I am out walking and I want to write an email, I will as likely as not, dictate it in gmail on the phone.  However it seems that most English speakers that I know never even consider this option. For Hebrew speakers, the idea is even farther from their minds because speech to text options are nowhere near as good in Hebrew yet as they are in English.
So what am I thinking about using this tool for?
Thanks to the projects that we just finished my students are reasonably proficient in Googledocs, and all but one or two have smartphones. Therefore, what I plan to do is a session on developing their writing skills. I will assign a topic for a composition and then teach them how to dictate into a Googledoc on their smartphones. This will be used as their first draft. They will share it with me and we will be able to conduct process writing using Google Docs.
There's only one glitch that I can see: on the standardized matriculation exams that they will have to pass in two years time, for which they need to hone in on their writing skills, they will not be able to use a computer to write, let alone Googledocs to dictate. Still, in the meantime, maybe this will be a help in teaching them how to compose their thoughts into a few paragraphs while working on their aural skills, as a bonus!
But hey! I see my job not only as a trainer of passing standardized exams. I'm trying to teach them a skill for life.
Have any of you ever tried anything similar? Can you think of any other ways to take advantage of this incredible feature of Googledocs? (Am I the only one getting excited over this? ;-)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Online Projects on Googlesites - Part Three Summing Up (for now)…..

For the third part in my reflection on using Googlesites for doing the NBA Project online I will sum up and reflect a little.

The students are finishing up their projects. I have added a page to our template site (the one which I discussed in the first blog on this topic) where I have collected links to all of the class’ projects. This will enable me quick and easy access to all of the projects. It will also enable the examiner who tests them in two year’s time to have all of the class’ projects at her or his fingertips.   

And what did the students feel about doing an online project?
Here are some excerpts (grammar mistakes and all) with their opinions:

“I think working with Googledocs it's better than working in files because the pages can be lost and in googledocs it will be hard to lose them, the project in googledocs will be filed in design more beautiful than just printed pages and You have in the internet more sources of information.”

“I think that working in googledocs is a bad idea because of a few reasons:
a. playing in the computer instead of working is tempting.
b. making us writing an important work in a program is a bad idea since we have no expirience in that. next time, make us do the work in hand... “

“ I enjoyed working with Google docs tho in was hard to use the Google sites.”

“First of all i think that working on the computer is boring and very difficult but the project helped me to improve my English and to learned on new religion the Rastafari and about Bob Marley.”

“I have a mixed opinion about working with Googledocs and Googlesite. I generally don't like working with computers, and working with Googletools made it even harder for me. However, I think that having all my project online on a Googlesite can be very useful, and I think that my site can help me in my bagrut.” 

“I think that working with "Google Doc" and having the all project on "Google Site" has advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that the project can be saved long time.

The disadvantage is that the project can disappear or be deleted. But I think doing this project in  "Google Doc" and in "Google Site" is better than doing it by writing and then print.”

“In the one side, I think that the works with googledocs and on an online tab its good, we learn how to use these tools and we express our information about working with computer, but in the other side I think that this work can be exhausting sometimes. When the internet does not work well and the computer stock.”

“I likes to work with the google docs and to build this online tab because it gaves me more skills to the future and I learn how to present things different."

There are some kids who liked it; others who hated it. The spread does not disturb me too much. I would have preferred it if more students had found embarking on a project which has them building an online presence an exciting endeavor (like I do J ) however, I am not disheartened by their remarks – not even the ones who hated it. I’ll tell you why: I feel that, in addition to my being an English teacher (English as a foreign language, please remember) I see myself as an educator, a role which sometimes calls for cruel and inhuman punishment of the type that will boot your students right out of that cushy comfort zone in which we all prefer to cuddle up in most of the time. To consider the option that our students will finish their high school educations without being somewhat experienced in basic Microsoft programs and collaborative Web 2 tools, is a possibility which I find absolutely abhorrent.  

These kids will be going out into environments (the army and then into the workforce) that are becoming ever more digital with every day that passes. We teachers often take it for granted that these kids are what are defined as “Digital Natives”, but they aren’t all. (In fact, MANY of them are not! Note how many negative comments I got in the feedback, as a result of challenging them to learn a tool to build a website?!) We owe them an education that equips them for real life to the greatest extent possible. 

Therefore, it is my sincere belief that in the long run, my students will benefit from learning how to write a research project and post it online, by populating a website with basic tools and writing collaboratively with peers and their teacher. Nobody learned anything while locked inside their comfort zone.

I fervently advocate finding ways to get our students working digitally. Do whatever it takes.

So now that you have read about my excursions into the land of virtual projects, AND read my students’ opinions, what do YOU think? Would YOU consider going digital with your class’ projects? Would you use Googlesites or another platform? Please share your thoughts here!

Digitally yours,

Friday, April 11, 2014

Online Projects on Googlesites – Part Two Glorious Googledocs

The Glories of Googledocs

It is the middle of the spring break. My students were supposed to have completed their blogs by now.  However after realizing that most of them had not, I pulled them in for a mini-marathon session. I brought them into our English Learning Center, gave them a quick review of what they were supposed to have included in their project, plugged them into the laptops and told them to get on with it.

The research paper, itself, had been written in Googledocs. It has been a fantastic way of doing process writing. The umbrella topic was “Customs and Beliefs”. Each pair embraced an area that could be considered as falling under this umbrella topic, and devised a research question, querying a connection or relationship or influence of one aspect of the research question, upon the other. From within the research question, each one of the pair had their specific focus. For example, a pair who did their research question on “What was the influence of the Rastafarian beliefs on Bob Marley’s music?” divided the work between them, with one of them researching Bob Marley’s music, while the other investigated Rastafarian beliefs. They then had to draw conclusions by reading each other’s research. They wrote all of their work in one Googledoc, which was shared with me. As they forged ahead with their undertakings, I was able to access their docs, write comments, suggest  ways to clarify, improve, correct spelling and grammar.
Thanks to Googledocs, nothing got lost; it all gets saved automatically in their Googledoc within their Google Drive. If they made a mistake, they went back in time and looked at the history.  From within the Googledoc history, they could either reconstruct where things had gone amiss, or just completely revert to an earlier version.  Magic!

In the past, when doing a project like this, I used to to collect reams of summaries and drafts each session, review them at home, write my comments, and give the pages back to them at the next lesson. By doing it all online, in Googledocs, I have the capability of accessing the projects-in-progress any time I want. I annotate the Docs, and then send the students an email telling them that I had written critiques; inviting them to go back in and work revise accordingly.

Unfortunately (as also happens in other modes of project work, when you “set them loose” in the library, not all of them use their time wisely. Hence – we find ourselves in the middle of April and not everyone has finished their project.

Back up the truck!

Of course, all of the students had an automatic, inborn understanding of what Googledocs were and how they are used. 


Prior to embarking on the research project, as an “enabling” exercise to teach the students how to work on a collaborative document, we did a round-robin activity. We had just finished learning a story which we had described as being a modern day fairy tale. I defined a modern day fairy tale as being a fairy tale that has the aspects of a traditional fairy tale (good vs. wicked, magical creatures or enchanted aspects, fairy godmothers, etc.) however the story was set in a contemporary environment. The kids were then all taught how to open a Googledoc (of course, at the beginning of the year, at the same time that I told them what school supplies they would need,  I instructed them to open a Gmail account).

The class was then given approximately 10 minutes to begin composing their "modern-day fairy tales". After 10 minutes, they were instructed to share their documents with three other students. The other students had to pick up the tales from where the previous writers had left off. They ALL had to share their fairy tales with me.

A view of the Fairy Tales in my Drive

And thus, they all became acquainted with the wonders of collaborative writing through the glorious tool which is  Googledocs..... and we all worked happily ever after.  

The End.

Note: Embedded, above, are two tutorials which I made for different purposes, but since they teach how to open and share a Googledoc, I used them to teach my students how to do so for our project, if they were absent on the day I taught it in class (or just as a reminder). 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Online Projects with Googlesites Part One

Rebooting April 2014

Any one of the five people (and that's an optimistic estimate) who perused my last post, way back in October, read that I had promised to be more active and consistent with my blogs. Well I am rebooting once again, however now, I am steeled with oodles of inspiration. First of all, are some truly exceptional blogging colleagues (+Yair Farby and +Efrat Maatouk) as well as the urging of someone whom I consider a mentor (+Aviv Tzemach), who has stated that part of the job description of a counselor for teachers in digital pedagogy, includes running a blog.  To top it all off, was the timely appearance of +Jules Taggart and her “Blog Revival Challenge”, in which I am participating this week. The “Challenge” promises to turn my blog content from "blah" to brilliant in 7-days.  So…as a result of the “Challenge”, I have revamped the look of the blog slightly, changed the name to “Digitally Yours” and have now officially declared as my best friend, to give my verbs (and adjectives, and probably nouns, as well) some “oomph”.

In my last blog, eons ago, I wrote about my intention to do an online research project with my 10th graders, using a Googlesites Template. So now, 6 months on, I can report on how that has been going. Since I do not want this blog to be agonizingly long, I will break it into a few blog postings. For now, I will just bring you up to scratch on where we are as of Passover break.

Although we finished working on the projects in our lessons in February, in order to move on to other curricular endeavors, most of the students have not completely finished their projects.  Not that it would have necessarily been different if the projects had been done in the usual tree-killing printed-out-on-paper mode, but there HAVE been some aspects of the online project which has made it more challenging than previously, among them, the issues of keeping track (for both myself and my students).  

To start out, my colleague Lily and I devised what we wanted to see in the quintessential project website, and prepared a basic template. The role of the template was to enable the students to simply copy the template, with all the required webpages.  Based on that, the students were expected to design, decorate and in short: take responsibility and ownership of their  websites for their projects.

We invested considerable time and thought into what we expected the projects to look like, and I built a template on Googlesites. A few days before presenting the concept to our students, I approached the task of  preparing short tutorial webcasts to teach the students how to copy and edit their sites,  filled with the anticipation and excitement of doing something new and inspiring. Then came the sucker-punch.  To my horror,  I realized that I was locked out of my template! After a few hours of frantic emails back and forth between my Google-savvy colleagues, and fruitless attempts at catching the attention of anyone of import at Google, itself, I caved. I reconstructed what I had envisioned for the template, and saved it as a model site, while at the same time screencasting the procedure as I built it.

I believe I can honestly say that, putting aside the initial mortification of having been exiled my own house; of having something I had developed unceremoniously hijacked from under my nose and within my realm of cyberspace, in the end….. I probably gained more than I lost. Because the bottom line is that, not only did my students learn how to do a research project; they also gained the experience of actually building a website.

Easy it wasn’t. But I believe that at least a few of them feel pride in having learned how to build a website that they can show to others. And when their time comes, in two years, to present their projects for their oral matriculations, I do not expect to hear the excuse that their mother threw out their project… or that the dog ate it.

Digitally yours, 

P.S. Below is an example of one of the tutorials I produced for the purposes of teaching the students how to build a website. They can all be found on my class site: AdeleEFL